A side story set almost 2 months after the Fireseed adventure.
Yusen deflected the giant locust’s attack; the curve of the single edged long sword met the creature’s stabbing right appendage and applied just enough force to shift its aim by a hand’s length.
A string of arrows struck the giant locust. The second member of his team, a girl with a composed demeanor, fired from twenty paces away across the abandoned field. The arrows did little damage, bouncing off the locust’s hard exoskeleton. Then one found a joint, elicited a screech from the bug.
Taking the moment of the creature’s divided attention. He adjusted his handgrip, turning the edge at angle, and unleashed one of his best guard-break attack, <Storm Rise Tide Fury>. Such was the force of impact the bug was visibly shaken, its legs scampered to regain footing.
On other days he would sweep low in a whirlwind to behind the creature and defences. He instead drew back half a step, monitored the young man to his right take up the vacated opening.
“<Cross Strike>!” the young man lunged. The movement activated his character’s skill and the body moved to a will of its own. The gladius was thrusted right to left. The creature shrieked terribly, a deep gash scored across the underside of its unsightly head. “It’s a hit!” The man exclaimed excitedly.
The young man followed the shirking locust in as was instructed earlier in the day. The creature bowed from the wound, revealing the weak spot behind the forehead between the back pair of antennas (the giant locus has two pairs), an area that could be described as the start of the locust’s neck. Almost, another strike by its chin will leave the locust stunned and fully exposed.
“Don’t!” Yusen frowned, hurriedly pushing forward.
The young man leapt high, aimed and brought his blade down. “<Falling Fang>”
That was not how he was instructed.
The gladius struck true, biting into the supple flesh –
-the blade, the young man and his buckler was tossed high up in the air. The locust’s hind legs packed a force more powerful than a cyclop’s fists.
“Enmir!” the girl’s cry came from behind.
The bug screeched and lunged, its yellow disgusting gel covered mandibles clamping down hungrily.
The young man’s attack failed to penetrate more than skin deep and only enraged the creature.
“Hoshisame (星雨), take Enmir.”
Late to launch yet earlier in arriving, Yusen placed himself in between the locust and the young man. With one hand he grabbed the fool by the back of the shirt, threw him down. With the other he swept the curved sword in a defensive strike.
Steel met rock hard chitin shell. Sparks showered. Yusen knocked the creature’s foreleg back, spun a full circle in mid-air, timed to catch a second strike from the locust. He and the locust landed back on the ground, both having expended considerable Focus in the exchange.
“How bad? Hoshisame.” He asked, keeping his sight ahead, past the blade and on the locust’s domed eyes.
“Down to one third health, it was a critical hit, fortune upon him, the shield took some of it. Status wounded and the bar was dropping fast. I’ve given him a potion, that stopped the health loss but it is not increasing much. Should I give him another?”
“That is fine. Stay back and keep out him out of trouble. Give him another, that will fill his exhaustion but cannot be helped.”
Yusen shifted his footing back, drawing the sword hilt back and up, the tip pointed forward, in a two handed over shoulder stance.
“Please be careful, ol’teacher.”
“Observe with all your hearts and learn, that is what you are here for. Enmir too, if he was not wrought under pain.”
It was PuddingBitter (苦布丁) who tasked him with training the two new recruits. The guild master picked up a herd of younglings during one outing and had the mind to take them under the wings. Something about duty to help those less experienced, guide them into the harsh difficulties of the third continent, where levels spiked and monsters grew sophisticated and intelligent. A good soft hearted man that pudding was.
Himself? Yusen was glad just to have a few rookies to tease and show off in front of. As Pudding liked to say, a simple man.
He was a high B ranked player (almost level 400). Against a lightly wounded giant locust of the Kazdon Fields it was a safe, if still some way from being easy fight.
9/9/7, 2/1/3. He scanned the overlay display and noted his Health, Spirit, Focus and respective exhaustion levels. He was in good conditions. Clearing half the field took some toll on exhaustion levels, especially Focus, the primary stats governing auto-guard and effectiveness of using skills. The 30% exhaustion level was going to delay recovery of the Focus expended in the exchange so far. He had best not draw out this fight.
Still as a mountain, calm as the winter lake. He breathed, and exhaled with the breeze. He burned Spirit with <Clarity Mind> and became one with the world. The creature before him grew large and closer. Every joint, every seta, every tendon of the creature was apparent.
The locust hissed at him, as if sensing the change in the man’s attitude, though he knew the creature did not possess the intelligence.
He held several distinct advantages. His agility compared to the locust’s size, his awareness over the insect’s based instincts, and his weapon.
His sword was a more ancient style than the common warrior sword of the East. The blade a full meter in length, the hilt also extended to allow a loose two handed grip. Less dextrous, better reach and speed. An extremely well forged sword granted the name <Edge of Thousand Fiery Lily Blossoms>. (千焰百合之鋒）
He channeled Spirit into it, the steel reddened and small flames enveloped the blade.
<Thunder Fang Tiger>, he charged the locust, felt the skill activate and allowed the system to guide his movements. Fast was the attack, at first unsettlingly silent before bursted in a thunderous gong, as if the surrounding air itself was cracked and buckled. Behind the thrust was force enough to shatter even the hardest shell of a Unkadu scorpion.
The locust leapt over the sword and him in effortless and harmlessly, in great anti-dramatic fashion.
A worried gasp escaped Hoshisame.
The Focus and Spirit consumed in executing the skill was not wasted; Yusen was counting on the locust executing the jump when confronted by a strong frontal strike.
He hooked one foot in the ground. The momentum reversed with the maneuver skill <Turn of Fall Leaves>, he cartwheeled, launched after the creature, sword rising – <Strongman Nigon’s Mountain Cleaver>.
The blade sliced through the soft underside. Glowing specks erupted thick and heavy out the large wound, accompanied by the creature’s suffered whine. It crash landed in a heap chin first, but quickly rolled back onto its legs. Its mandibles opened and closed furiously, with a cry, out launched glob after glob of yellow stench steaming spit at the human.
Yusen approached head on. The auto-guard guided his movements, his arms moved with a will of its own, the globs spattered on the sword edge and dripped to the side, his legs carried him out of harm’s way. For those that the system could not completely deflect, he braved through, the burning sensation sent tingles wherever the glob splashed on the skin. His health dropped, increments small enough which he ensured. He kept the advance, not allowing the locust’s attack to hinder. Cutting and stabbing at its appendages, exhausting the creature’s own Focus.
The locust could not escape by performing the same leap, with its ghastly wound. It clawed and kicked threateningly to keep danger from striking, with varied success.
He spared it little sympathy. It could not be considered alive, and it was a vicious creature that attacked without provocation. It was either it, or him and the two rookies under his charge. Such was the way of this cruel and unfair world. Filled with suffering, tragedies, harshness. The only surety was the system and its absolute fairness.
He and the creature obeyed the same rules. Auto-guard was not effective while actively using combat skills.
The creature, was not given the intelligence to be aware of that fact, nor learn of it after he just exploited it.
Yusen offered the locust another opening, intentionally suppressed the system auto-guard from moving into blocking posture. Manually he leaned to the right, in the starting movement of <Shrouded Waterfall>. It was a risky endeavor, forgoing the auto-guard. He was solely responsible for judging the timing and distance for the move. The slightest miscalculation would result in the locust inflicting an unguarded critical hit, the same as was done to Enmir.
He felt the locust’s <Pincer Bite> snap past. A small chunk of his health dropped, taken by a graze to the left shoulder, otherwise it failed to register as a hit. Suddenly he was to the right and behind the bulb that was the bug’s head.
The upraised curved sword slashed down, like a sheet of fallen water it cut cleanly through the weakspot behind the forehead. The locust twitched, fell flat.
He shrugged off the golden specks clinging to the blade, returned it to its sheath.
“Are you okay, Hoshisame?” he turned his back on the limp body of the locust that was slowly dissolving into floating golden specks, and asked.
“We are alright, thanks to you ol’teacher,” the girl answered. Her gold streaked dark hair was disheveled, some of that side ponytail caught on her gentle features in sweat.
“Good job with the potion, quick response,” he said. Noting the way the girl had helped Enmir to the potion bottle. “You’re very used to taking care of that fool.”
“Childhood friends, afterall,” there was a smile. She looked at the young man sitting next to her with doting exasperation. “He’s the one with a sword and spot at the front, he gets hurt a lot more than I do.”
“Thank you, ol’te-ooch!” Enmir took a pommel to the head.
Yusen sheathed the sword. “Next time, do as instructed! You could have gotten yourself and Hoshisame killed. Understand? This is no simple game, you die here, you’re dead.”
“Yes, sir,” the rookie answered. He paused, jumped and ruffled his hair in annoyance. “Damned’it, I thought I could hit the weakspot and finish it there.”
“You need to know what your limits are,” Yusen said calmly. He did not blame the young man, at least not much.
Things almost went very wrong, if Yusen did not outlevel the locust significantly they most certainly would have become another names in the Field of Remembrance, like many other rookies who failed to learn the lessons in time. It was why BitterPudding tasked him with training the two in the first place, to guide them in the hunt and teach them the skills needed to survive, skills that he and others had learnt through too much sacrifices. And they had just learnt one of the most important.
“If you hope to succeed in your adventurer progression test, you need to learn more about yourself, your character. Vid’Alucina is no longer a game, but at its foundation is still a game. Lesson of the day, listen well, there’s no such thing as uncertainty. You need to know that that strike is beyond your character’s abilities currently. For example, do you know how many seconds it will take you to reach that, ignoring reaction time and not using any skills?” he pointed to a large stone boulder some fifty paces out.
“Maybe 7, 8 seconds?” Hoshisame blinked.
“I say about 7 seconds as well,” said Enmir.
“It will take me 4.88 seconds. This is important, your character’s stats are known at any point in time, based on those stats the system has calculated how fast you can move. You need to know what the system has decided. Unlike in real life, your character can always put out 100% of what it is capable of at that point in time based on its stats. If I can run 50 paces in 4.88 seconds, then I can always do that when I need do, and I can never do it in any time less so I know to never attempt it if I do not have 4.88 seconds.
“For most of your journey up till now you’re used to levelling up, getting better equipments and adding to your stats, trading blows and overwhelming monsters through sheer force of numbers, sprinkling maybe a few exploitation of weaknesses. But once you are in the Third Continent, levelling becomes harder, the differences in stats gets smaller, your character’s growth plateaus. Learn to play closer to your potential, it is what will keep your alive and take you further.”
It took little time for Hoshisame to realize the implications of his words. She nodded, “I get it, if I know precisely my limits I can maximize efficiency and avoid mistakes. But what of times when I am not at 100%? Say I have exhaustion, wounded, or have a buff or debuff?”
“That is the million ducat question of what separates good players from the masters. The more you are able to accurately judge your limits at any circumstances, the better you will be compared to others. You expend less Spirit, lose less Focus; strike with faster speed and waste less moments readied in defence, you become equal of someone several folds higher in skills. I myself am not anywhere close to that stage when it comes to calculating moves, in fact I am but a novice that has made a small step. Nonetheless knowing what can be achieved in perfect conditions gives a good baseline to start out from.”
“Can anyone actually do that? Knowing what one can do in any circumstances,” Enmir was less than convinced.
“Indeed, that is a stage more hypothetical than reality. In practice, very few realizes the importance of simple training and knowing limits. As that connotes, you two are already better players than most you will meet on the street in Port Capital. But to answer your question, yes, there are probably a few out there, the absolute top players, who can perform near 100% for most times. There is at least one I know for certain who does, he who taught me the ropes.”
“Not my teacher, at least nothing formal. It was when I first ventured out in the Third Continent too. He helped me with a difficult quest, and taught me many things over the course of a few days. Then he left, as sudden as he had appeared. The very best player if I’ve ever seen one.”
Yusen looked up at the clouds, lost in memories.
Finally, he turned back to the young pair.
“I can still fight, my health has been restored,” Enmir saw the glint in his eyes and protested.
“And the next time you suffer a grievous wound the potions would prove ineffective. Patience, few peaks are climbed in a single day. That is enough for one day, we have cleared three fields of infestation, that earn us a moderate grade bounty reward. The other fields will be cleared by others over the next few days. In time, the farmers will reclaim these fields and the nearby villages will prosper that little bit more. Did we salvage enough saplings while we’re at it?”
“This one makes twenty,” Hoshisame just about finished up putting away the pumpkin vine sapling the locust had been drawn to.
“We need four more,” said Enmir.
“Five, you also accepted the request of the lady by the dried well who desires one for her garden.”
“Gives you two something to work on this weekend together, is that not wonderful say you two, less shopping for you, and more opportunity for you, and less embarrassed look from both please. We head back, and go somewhere for dinner, Enmir’s treat.”
“No complaining. Consider it punishment.”
“That’s a wonderful idea,” said Hoshisame as well.
“What would you like, ol’teacher?”
“You two have been to most of the better known places in Port Capital in the past month, I think? That’s right. So, how about tonkatsu curry? Have you been to Aroma, it’s a cafe in Palmerton.”
“Aroma? Oh let’s go there, let’s go there. Inglekitty told me about it, she say they make the most wonderful taste, and their dessert is sublime!”
“Eh…. I heard that place is really expensive?! Ah… well, if Hoshi-chan is keen to try it.. I guess everyone should have some enjoyment now and then.”
“Yay! Thank you Enmir.”
“It’s decided then, we’ll head out after reporting to the guild.”
~ * ~ * ~
He files his report with BitterPudding and met up with the rookies in the entrance lounge. The day’s hunting done, the two had changed into casual outfit; something experienced players who endured the chaos of Eventide usually frowned upon, the horrors of their memories demanded they be always at alert. Now the days were calm, in the streets people greeted each other warmly in passing.
Enmir wore dyed jeans and a t-shirt printed with an illustrated picture of the Shaman, reigning champion of the Arena. The boy was a great fan and followed the matches keenly every weekend.
T-Shirt. It was hard to believe that fashion took hold in this world. Life had become so normalized that people could devote resources into less practical matters. That they spent enough time outside of dungeons and hunts to warrant purchasing clothing that could only be worn in town.
Keeping to her usual efficiency, Hoshisame had redid her side ponytail. A <露肩上衣> with skirt like hems and shorts that was the latest trend from the Western First Street fashion market.
Yusen also was slowly getting used to not worrying about being stabbed around every corner. He walked easily, without armor or other protections. He kept his sword at side, a compromise to contain the nerves. Without it he felt exposed.
They walked to the transportation courtyard. The rookies followed him, pulled on the porting bell and were instantly transported kilometers away in the elemental stream that covered this world like a fine web.
“Chuu!” sneezed Hoshisame as soon as they stepped out of the fading glow of the elemental stream. She accepted a blanket from Enmir and clad it about her shoulders like a cowl.
The temperature was noticeably several degrees cooler than Port Capital. A distant peak rises above, its top capped in pale blue snow in the moonlight, echoing with the whispers of late autumn. A quiet small town situated on a gentle slope at the foot of the mountain ranges. On its single main boulevard walked few residents and even less adventurers.
“What a small place, I was expecting dank busy streets filled with people of all walks, like a pirate’s cove,” surprised an overly imaginative Enmir.
“Aroma is a cafe, not a bar, my young knight in training,” he laughed. “In anycase, its owner prefers to keep a personal touch. Pointless chatter, overly helpful, inviting himself into other people’s business. And being overly friendly,” He gave Hoshisame a blink. “But not to worry, the last one is an act by the fellow, I think.”
Their destination sat at the head of the street. The two storey cottage was built of cedar cut from neighboring forests, the wood were precisely cut and unpolished to yield an appearance that was both industrial and elegant. The first floor windows which were sized large and cut low, offering unbounded view. From its position it overlooked the township, the warm glow of a brazen fire shining through the impeccably cleaned glass beckoned like a lighthouse, welcoming the journeyed and wandered to the shelter of a homely bay.
He lead his charges up the street and stepped up the planked steps. The doorbell chimed of glass against brass chink to his soft tug on the door.
“Welcome to Aroma!” a cheery, familiar voice of a young woman called out.
“Welcome,” much less cheery, equally familiar voice of a quirky man who only had two mood of too bored or too excited. Today seemed to be the former.
“Welcome, dear customer,” came a third voice, also familiar and wholly unexpected.
He stepped into the relaxed lounge atmosphere lit by sunset glow crystal lanterns. “Hey Icedrip.”
“Yusen, what an unexpected pleasure!” the less cheery voice perked up in excitement. “I have not seen you for days. What brings you today, nay nay, what does you bring today? Ho ho mmmhmm.” The man paced around the tall counter to the front to greet his guests. Dark hair kept in an unkempt average cut, in clothing equally devoid of any notable features. He had devoted all attention to the appearance of the cafe and barely any to his personal own.
“Oh wow, that smells good,” in followed Enmir. He sniffed the air, his attention moved to the right then left, from the picture covered back wall to the counters to the tables.
Hoshisame tugged the young man’s sleeve when she passed, “Let’s find a seat. So hungry I can eat a whole hog.”
“What did you say?” she glared at her childhood friend.
“I said me too.”
Yusen looked about, searching for the owner of that third voice. Even for dinner time business was unusually good, by the standard of Aroma, out of the twenty odd tables there were five or six with people. He was interrupted.
“Who’s this, and this, goodness oh goodness. I see now why you have not dropped by Yusen!”
The man was oblivious to the girl’s reaction. He leaned in, tilted his head left and right, and paced around her, studying, as though he was a fashion magazine scout.
“So these are the newbies you’re said to be handed with. I see, I see. Well, supremely well.”
“Please excuse us, mister,” Enmir blocked the man off with one arm.
“Can you not do that, Icedrip,” Yusen shook his head. “You’ve gotten worse.”
“But I am ow,ow,ow!” A hand reached from behind the man and pinched his collar. He dropped to the floor dramatically as if writhing in agony.
“That is quite enough, Manager,” came that third voice. A girl with pink hair, rare even in this world, withdrew her hand. Dressed in a mint green summer dress and white knee-highs, in the style of Aroma’s uniform.
She pulled the man behind her. “I’m sorry, miss. Please accept my apologies on behalf of our fool of a cafe manager.” She bowed, and carted the man away. “Can’t you ever learn, Manager, it’s because you’re always like this that this place don’t get many customers.”
“Leliry? What are you.. Are you working? Are you working here, part-timing?” Yusen was becoming ever more confused.
“Oh hi Yusen, hahah, uh…”, a nervous blush rose up on the bright features of the young woman called Leliry. “It’s bit of a long story, sorry I will get back to you in a few minutes, need to deal with the Manager first. Please take a seat first, three of you. Alright Manager, get back to cooking, you, don’t you dare make whines.”
“Wait now, I’m no worse than this jester here. Did you youngsters know that your teacher is quite the talented act? Oh yes, played with many hearts and had us for fools many times. I’d spare one eye on him, if I were you, lad.”
“Nocturne, help me with this idiot!”
The source of the second voice, Aroma’s regular server, a young woman a few years senior in appearance to Leliry, joined with a wide smile. “Of course, Miss Leliry.” Together they hauled the joker into the kitchen.
“What was that?” Enmir asked.
“Was that the owner of the place?” Hoshisame asked.
The rest of the cafe’s patrons ignored the commotion and continued their meal and chatter. A few, whom Yusen recognized, gave him an affirmative nod before looking back down.
“It’s a long…. story,” he considered his words. “In any case, let us find a table.”
They grabbed a table by the window and helped themselves to the menu.
Enmir looked through the list, “I don’t see tonkotsu curry.”
“Oh, curry’s not on the menu, you can order them,” Yusen said.
“There’s also very few desserts, strange, there’s no strawberry cake Inglekitty said,” Hoshisame added.
“Strawberry cake?” he studied the menu. Hoshisame was correct, there were only six items under desserts and none of them had strawberries in them.
Now he think of it, this was only the second time he looked into the menu here.
Leliry came back out, she brought water to their table. “Again please accept my apologies, dear customers.”
“No need to apologize, miss. This is quite the interesting place. Excuse me, but do you have strawberry cakes here?”
“Yes miss, today we have three kinds of strawberry cakes available. Sake marinated winter strawberry cake with kuzu. Fresh cheese cake with strawberry spread. And chiffon strawberry pudding cake,” came the reply immediately.
“I guess they’re not in the menu…”
“Seasonal items, dear miss, please enquire for them,” Leliry started, then sighed. “But I guess to begin with most customers don’t know them to order.”
“Actually now I think of it most items here are hidden items,” Yusen suggested.
“Yes, it is that way. Worse is I still don’t know all of them, thankfully Nocturne is always around to help. The Manager thinks not listing every item keep the place interesting, allow for varieties and offer surprises,” the shake of her head indicated how much she shared that opinion.
“I really don’t know what to order, can you order for me, ol’teacher,” Hoshisame folded the useless menu back up.
“Giku?!” he choked. He looked to Leliry.
“Perhaps you would like to try the…” Leliry suggested a few options. After some exchanges Hoshisame decided on the mushroom steak and breast cutlet in spicy curry sauce with rice and yoghurt lime juice.
Enmir picked from the menu, the grilled salmon and eggplant bowl and a cappuccino.
“And I’ll have a lean pork croquette with special orange sauce mozzarella pasta grill,” Yusen ordered.
“We have that?” Leliry blinked, then wrote it down, another sigh. “We have that.”
“Thanks, and an earl grey latte.”
“Earl grey latte… this one I know.”
She left momentarily before returning with some appetizer treat, a glass of lightly salted fried noodle pretzels.
“Thank you. It must be hard work. So when did you start working here, Icedrip didn’t kidnap you did he?” he checked behind her for the chain.
The young woman’s cheeks took on some color. “This is my fourth week, only once or twice a week. It’s complicated, but mostly, the Manager needed extra hands to help out, someone with a more human touch, and you know, my atelier isn’t that established yet and money can be a little tight.”
Yusen considered the possibility. For one Aroma did not enjoy businesses to need an extra pair of hands while Leliry’s place had no shortage of waiting customers. He decided the matter didn’t warrant outright disbelief.
“It would appear you know each other, ol’teacher?” Hoshisame asked.
“Fufu, are you two taking lessons from Yusen. You are fortunate, he is very skilled, very disciplined. For your question, we have been friends for quite some time.”
“Leliry is my contractual alchemy-smith, she has crafted every weapon I uses since coming to the Third Continent.”
“Ehhhhh?!!” a shocked Enmir jumped. He leaned over the table. “You crafted ol’teacher’s Fiery Lily Blossoms? You’re the Leliry of Smonglr Cliff?! The alchemy-smith of Atelier Synstylae’s Edge? The only alchemy-smith who has crafted named fire elements blades? Who has forged the sword that slayed elder demons in a single strike and the spear that cleared the Abyss of Wailing Torment?”
“Calm down Enmir.”
“I am flattered by your recognition. Yes, that is I but I won’t quite describe it like that,” Leliry was taken back by the retelling of her deeds as though epic tales.
The Manager showed up suddenly. “Don’t be modest Lyric-chan, you have another fan here it appears. Oh yes learned one, this is the great alchemy-smith, nay, the greatest alchemy-smith. The only one with an innate fire elements at level of perfect attunement. Her works are amongst the very best in all the lands, each one worth a hundred times the commission yet you shall not find one willing to part with their own. The treasured idol Lyric-chan of Smonglr Cliff who is lovely as she is talented. Her smile has unwittingly stolen the heart of a hundred man, and girls, and the boxes she receives on a February day is enough to stock her own chocolatier,” he gestured like a priest delivering sermon. “And sadly, lately, I regret to say to her fans, sorry kid if you are one, but our precious Lyric-chan may be – opuwhh!” He was smashed across the chin by a baguette.
“Stop it! Manager you idiot!” Leliry placed the baguette back in the decorations basket.
“Lyric-chan, you shouldn’t be this violent, it’s not befitting your image.”
“Then maybe you’d like to have that image of me corrected, or maybe you prefer to be cooking instead?” the air near Leliry looked ready to burst into flame.
“Wait, wait, let me give my callpass to our new guests, as a commemoration!”
“Such simple tasks hardly deserves taking time away from the preparations. I will give it to them, Manager.”
Once more the dejected man was sent away.
She tapped out two callcards, duplicated them with a splitting gesture, and nudged them through the air. “The Manager’s, and mine also.”
Yusen gave a nod to their look. They accepted the cards and registered them in their contacts.
“Again I am sorry. The Manager is a good man, it has been a slow day and he’s very excited to see new customers and a chance to share his passion, cooking I mean. I hope you will have a different impression once you’ve had a taste. I know you will enjoy your meals.”
She profusely made several more apologies before she left to see to other customers.
They were finally left to themselves. Enmir drew a fried noodle stick.
“This is cracking. I think my hope is restored.”
“Come now Enmir, that wasn’t so bad. I have not ever seen a livelier place, you can sense the miss deeply trusts and respects the manager.”
Where did she get that? thought Yusen, and saw Enmir thinking the same.
“Oh you boys won’t get it. Oh this is delicious. Now don’t poke me with them, hey, stop it Enmir.”
Yusen took one himself. It was one of the common appetizers on rotation served to guests around meal time. Thin egg noodles were lightly fried and dusted with a fine rock salt spice and laid over Fresha leaves, a species of bramble native to this world, to absorb its scent.
Aroma, was more than a cafe. There was another lesson to be learnt tonight, he observed his two pupils across the table tease each other. He would see if they pick up on it.
Their main course was brought by Nocturne, the cafe’s full time waitress. She was not an adventurer but a native resident of this world. She wore a dress similar to Leliry, the collar tied off at the front with blue ribbon instead of red, which matched well with her long midnight hair. There was some change in Nocturne demeanor since the last time Yusen was here. Subtle yet noticeable. Friendlier, with a more natural smile. Usually residents of this world was a little deadpanned; perhaps some of Leliry’s cheer rubbed off on her, or perhaps the Manager had given her another upgrade. Each of their plate was placed before them, perfectly centered and oriented. Ink-art ceramics, delicate bamboo chopsticks and spoons.
He scooped into his pasta grill. The cheese cover opened, like opening the fountain of heaven and poured forth the most wonderful rich scent. He breathed in deeply, it was all he could do to keep himself from munching away like a bear in spring, and waited for Enmir and Hoshisame to have a taste of their own dishes first.
Their eyes widened and lit up like moonstones on mid autumn night. Enmir wolfed down his salmon, not wasting a moment for compliments. Meanwhile the girl next to him sat motionless, lost in the sensation of exotic spices most balanced and delicate.
He thought back to his initial experience walking through the door of this quiet town cottage. The place had not long opened, the food was not at the same level back then, not quite the menu choices, complexity nor availability of ingredients. It still was the first time since coming to this world which he was reminded of a previous life not far and so far away.
In some small way, this was where it began, when people like him began to live, no longer blinded in sole mindlessness, to not spend each waking moment despairing for a path back to the outside world and each sleeping moment dreaming of a better life.
In the madness and despair, there was a small piece of normality, a small piece of comfort. Something to look forward to.
“Ol’teacher?” Hoshisame’s voice brought him back out. “Your pasta will get cold.”
“It is quite alright, thanks. I’m just thinking of how old I’m getting.”
“You are old,” Enmir commented.
“Enmir! Yusen ol’teacher is barely older than us,” she elbowed the boy.
“I don’t mean age,” Enmir explained.” I mean, how much more experienced than us, old, wise.”
“Time flow differently here. I have only been in the third continent for a year, already it feels like ten,” Yusen said. “You two have talents, and are good learners. You will catch up before you know it. Not just in skills or adventuring, also resourcefulness. The Manager of this place, Icedrip.”
“The uncourteous one,” said Enmir sourly.
“Okay ignore the issue where he teases every cute girl he runs across -”
“Fufufu, finally even you admit I am cute!”
“-across. He is a good and honest man,” he shook his head. “If either of you, or any of your friends, is met with a difficult situation, go to him. He will be able to help you.”
“He does make very good food,” Hoshisame mused.
“Good food doesn’t resolve crisis. We have you and BitterPudding, ol’teacher.”
“Your faith and confidence is appreciated, Enmir. There may be a day when I live up to your admiration, for now, I am far from that. I am merely a high B rank, same for BitterPudding, there are hundreds of A ranks above us, and some more above them. There are so many things in this world that is beyond me, and there will be times when I will not be around. The Manager, Icedrip? He is at least an A rank, if it weren’t for his cooking skills which must have consumed an enormous amount of his stats, he would probably be a high A, close to one of the legendary S ranks.”
“Please don’t say some foreboding cliche line, ol’teacher.”
“For sure you joke, that guy?”
“You don’t gather ingredients and recipes like the ones Aroma has without being able to handle oneself out there. Some of the things in our plates are 6 star rares, and the quests to obtain the secret recipes are no simple task. Don’t let his demeanor fool you, there is a man who has witnessed some of the harshest this world has to offer. He has given me many advices in times of needs, many times dropping them before I was aware I lacked them.”
“I owe it to a lot of people to still be here today, many who have saved my lives, helped me on quests and missions, taught me vital informations that helped me stave off failures. Leliry, the Manager, many more.
“Enmir, you’ve said you want to some day stand before the Shaman.”
“Yes! I will be a great fighter, attend the arena and fight in the final with the undefeated champion,” he said with enthusiastic naivety.
“Undefeated champion~fufu,” Hoshisame cheered.
“Hoshi-chan, you know that one time was a fluke.”
“When was that, five or six weeks ago?” Yusen did not follow the games very closely and missed the fight in question, only what was heard in passing from others. The reigning champion’s shock defeat was quite the talk back then.
“Shaman would have won, if she had chained the <Nova Destruct> with <Taurus Vici>, but she had to fight IronBane in the semi and was far too exhausted by then. The unnamed grey contestant knew he got lucky and have no shot repeating the same run, that was the first and only time he showed up at the arena.”
He had met Shaman once, felt the indomitable aura just from the woman standing, a true warrior at heart and mind. There was no such thing as luck for that person. <Nova Destruct> was one of the most powerful strikes for axe wielders, chaining it with <Taurus Vici> created a charging strike that covered distances before an eye blink.
A not uncommon tactic, If it was not used then there was a reason for it. Yusen considered. Enmir was a good kid, brave and determined, but very much a straight shooter.
“If you seek to be on the same level as Shaman, you need more than just your own skills. Everyone may stand alone in the arena, but they are not alone. When you’re out there, think more of those who are concerned for you.”
Enmir nodded quietly. He eyed his childhood friend.
“I was so worried. Seeing you get struck and not moving like a rock.”
“In the Third Continent, more than gaining levels it is just as important to have those who you can rely on in times of need, those you can trust. You’re already a step ahead of many others, you and Hoshisame have each other.”
“That’s right, you have me!”
“Ah, my eggplant, I was saving that!”
“And I happy receive them, thank you Enmir. Mmm they taste so good.”
“That’s it – “
“Stop, no, not my cutlets! Enmir you meanie!”
A smile rose to Yusen’s lips. It was good to be young and innocent. He ate into the pasta. It was good to be alive.
“You two performed admirably today. Enmir learned to direct his new scouting ability to watch for hidden dangers, and remembered to be more flexible in switching between offensive and defensive skills, and quick to act, if proven foolhardy. And Hoshisame, you’ve shown good judgement in assists and taking initiatives, and now have better field awareness required as a mid-range support. Next time I think we can have you two take the lead.”
“Enmir will lead us off the map again!”
“I will not! Besides even then there’s nothing to worry about if we fall into the giant slug’s burrow, we’ll have ol’teacher with us this time.”
Hoshisame let out an adorable pitiful squeal at that viscus memory.
“Well now, to celebrate your growth, and since someone is picking up the bill tonight I think I’ll have dessert after this.”
“Me too, me too! I want to try the strawberry cake.”
~ * ~ * ~
Next morning, Enmir emerged from the adventurer administration hall. He walked across the square toward them.
“Well?” Yusen looked up from the bench.
“He passed of course,” Hoshisame said. “I made him memorize all the past test questions last night, he passed.”
“By the looks, you forgot to make him memorize the answers as well,” he noted the boy’s solemn face. “Ten ducats say he failed. Well, speak up, Enmir.”
“No bets,” the girl declined, not due to any lack of confidence.
“Sorry Hoshi-chan,” Enmir spoke. Yusen turned with a grin. It faded. “I only got nineteen out of thirty five questions.”
That’s not a fail.
“That’s fantastic Enmir, I knew you could do it!” she tackled him. “One more mission and you’ll be have enough standing with the office, you’ll be able to accept just about any quests.”
“But you stayed up so late, cramming them into my slow brain, and…”
“A pass is a pass!” she stopped him, held his hand with contagious joy.
Yusen nodded, then shook. “A done job is a job well done. Less deserving of cheer, the practical portion of the final quest is dependent on the test score, the better the score the easier the mission. I’ve seen A+ results being asked to deliver a package down the road. A low passing mark means a poorer draw. What did you get?”
“Haven’t looked at the assignment in detail yet, let me see what the scroll says…. Something on a corrupted village headswater and cleansing with the Totem of Sunsnake.”
Yusen groaned audibly.
“Is that bad?” Hoshisame asked.
“I would throw some salt over Enmir to cast off the spirits. The sunsnakes dwell in the depth of the Wretchbone Deep, an overgrown swampy forest not far on the east side of the peninsula, out of the way and have no notable treasures. It’s a maze that one can easily become lost and lead to dead ends. There are several points where there is but a single path between sections, the dense growth and also fog make for easy concealment. The monsters and traps there does not pose significant obstacles but…”
“That’s no problem, if on the peninsula the difficulty level cannot be much above us. I’m sure we’re up to them,” Hoshisame stopped him. She eyed him, blinked.
If Enmir suspected any ventures into the dungeon to be too dangerous, he would insist on leaving her out. He paused, uncertain of whether to make the threat evident.
“We must take more precautions than usual, and make as readied preparation as possible,” he decided finally. “I’ll let PuddingBitter know where we’ll be off to, in the meantime you two should go see to the supplies. We must leave on the morrow before the first rooster crows. If all goes well we’ll be back before the night is long. I want to avoid camping out if at all possible.”
~ * ~ * ~
He woke the two younglings before the twilight was faded, though succeeding in only waking one; Hoshisame was already almost dressed when he knocked on her room.
The innmaster had been notified the night before and the inn’s gentle manservant had breakfast prepared. On the dining table was left a tray of cold chicken sandwiches, some fruits and pitcher of milk.
“Be quick, but don’t wolf them down,” he told them. With a nabbed triangle in hand which he nibbled on at a constant rate, with the other he fumbled for and hung a pot over the stove, for tea.
Hoshisame ate in suppressed calmness, in the mistaken image of a lady of high upbringing if not for the leather corselet and shoulder guard.
Enmir stuffed down the fourth slice of sandwich and washed them down with a glass of milk. “This stuff is great, we should order them again next time. I’m done, I’ll go grab our packs,” he said and left.
Yusen made his usual brew of earl grey before he started onto the second slice. Steam rose troubled as his thoughts. He stared, and chewed, then watched some more. Then he realized he had been posed a question.
“Do you know much is a commission from Madame Leliry, maybe if you put in a word for me?”
“More than what you can accrue, not even if you empty all your savings. A shelf item, yes, a commission, no. Not before his birthday.”
“I don’t mean… I mean, I see. To be expected, they are incomparable to common merchant stocks. Not yet, some day.”
Yusen added no further remarks, the log beamed dining hall fell silent once again.
“You are troubled, ol’teacher.”
“I am, Hoshisame,” he replied. “It may be what remained in me of the Eventide. Wishfully nothing, a figment of a poor night’s rest. Let not a weary fool’s demeanor affect you.”
“You think there is trouble waiting at the Deep?”
“I do not think it, I feel it. I do not know why, there is no reason to suspect there is trouble. The Eventide is long over, the times of troubles in the past. This near to Port Capital there few chance to find Red’s lurking around the next passage, and it is not some profitable grounds where disputes may spoil into conflicts. It is senseless, bereft of logic. I cannot think of any good reason to think, but I have no providence over what myself feel.”
“Should we hold off on it. Wait for PuddingBitter and others to accompany us.”
“I leave that decision to you, Hoshisame. I see puzzlement in you when there should not be. You have the most to lose in either choice being awry. You two are my charge and for what is within my powers and perhaps beyond I will keep you from harm, and unreservedly offer guidance. Still I am not your master, you should not let me rob you of choices and lessons.”
“That’s a pretty good excuse.” the retort brought him a smile.
“A fine line, it may be. As for advice, I suggest PuddingBitter has hands full with his own newbies. We are here because we believe in venturing out and not let the hashities of this world defeat us. Let fear dictate and we have best return to Starter and never again step outside the safety of townships. Besides, if we suggest it to be a dangerous prospect your boy is going to overreact, no good ever comes of that. It is a Saturday, there will be fewer people out in the wilds and less troubles.”
Hoshisame sifted through his words. He could not tell if the girl, unspoilt by the darkness of Eventide, understood the depth in them. Better also that she did not. “We go.”
“Final task, then we move on to your progression quests. We really ought to have done it in the other order, it would have been infinitely simpler. Your patience is to be applauded.”
“Only one person in a party needs to be eligible to accept quests, my own progression can be made anytime. Enmir works so hard, running after the fiery sun. I can support him along the way, that is why I do. As childhood friends.”
“That boy must be a saint in a previous life to have earned this much karma.”
Enmir emerged through the archway. “I’ve got everything in the lobby.”
“Then let us be on our way, ready Hoshisame?” he finished the remaining half cup of tea, placed the cups and plates back onto the tray and gripped the handles to either side, paused for Hoshisame to place her own cup and plate onto the tray, and carried them to the return shelves next to the counters.
The first leg of the journey covered by a port to a town near the Deep large enough to afford the construction of a porting bell. Then a small trek through the wilderness following small hunting trails. Yusen avoided most encounters along the way, exhaustion was conserved and left less traces of them having been through the area.
Sixty five minutes later. Beyond the shallow banks of an emerald river, The Deep.
Tortured roots of dense beeches tall as forty meters formed a natural border. The upper reaches of the foliage were a faded green, tinted yellow in the woken sun, but just below where the light struggled to penetrate, a light mist shrouds crooked branches and black tainted leaves. The trees have stood for hundreds, even a thousand years, struggling and strangling each other, fighting sickly for the barest ray of sunlight.
Small saplings peek out grey mud, the nearby giants spread their foliages and rob the saplings of their chance for childhood. Half of a hundred would wilt, and thirty of the rest rot, the score that managed to touch a speckle of light would sprout up, lean on the old tree where the tendril of their roots drill beneath the barks with consuming avarice.
The grown trees suffer haplessly, a slow death smothered under a thousand tiny parasites born from their very own flesh. At long last they expires, their core rots, leaving empty husks that become footholds for the small trees in their race to sun and survival. Until the cycle repeats. The oppressed atmosphere tasted bitter on the tongue.
Maze, an area where the elements were rendered severely out of balance, the natural stream permeating all Vid’Alucina became severed and formed their own local system, isolated from the outside world. The abnormal atmosphere often attracts rare species that made it their dwelling, and other common creatures became more wild and develop unusual traits. Lethally for adventurers, porting was impossible and communication links were reduced to extremely short distances.
An excited Enmir splashed across the shallows, he thumbed a dried hump on the trunk of one tree. “It’s rotten.”
Yusen cleared his throat.
“Enmir, let us go through precheck.”
“But we already did before we left, we don’t need… of course you’re right, Hoshi-chan, let’s do the check,” Enmir gave way under those fiery brown eyes.
“Critical, major, salve, rejuvenate. Health and Spirit. Check. Remedies?”
“Poison, curse, burns, painkiller, daze, check. Smoke cracker?“
“Che…. wait where have they gone? I had clipped them to my belt. Here? No. This pocket perhaps, or this one…my ears are red. Thank you, Hoshi-chan”
She shared the content of her own pouch with him at my indication.
‘Smoke for cover, check. Lights?”
“Lantern, candle, glow pebbles. Check…”
The two went through each other’s inventory for the twenty odd items no one should venture into a maze without. Yusen inspected his own as they were called out.
When every vital item had been accounted, Yusen unfurled a length of scroll and spoke the words of power. An insurance.
“Stay close, keep insight of each other. Speak up if so much as a shudder in a blade of grass or a chirp of a songbird puts you off ease. Now lead on. Act not be surprised, you two leads, this is your quest, try not to lead us to each and every corner of the forest.”
* * *